For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More by Bill Berkson
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2010)
Weeks after I first read Bill Berkson's For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Occasional Pieces & More, I kept going back in my mind to something he'd said about Alfonso Ossorio whose works are known to me. Berkson said of (some of) them:
…they bespeak a love of (or anyhow fascination with) “immobility,” a.k.a. Inertia.
I'd never thought of "inertia" before as regards Ossorio's work, undoubtedly because of the riot of color, surfaces and found objects in his works. But, you know, Berkson is right (or, I agree with Berkson). There can be a flatness (and I don't say this negatively) in some of the surfaces/colors of Ossorio's work. There can be a paradoxical stillness within his assemblages, such as in the following image where each part (as can be delineated, say, by individual found objects) remains apart from each other:
In the past—and whether aptly or not—I’d often looked at Ossorio’s assemblages mostly abstractly—that is, focusing on the shapes and colors instead of the content. It’s Berkson’s “inertia” comment that makes me pause to note, Yes, that’s an eye; yes, that’s a piece of driftwood … and so on. This doesn’t dampen my appreciation—indeed it heightens my appreciation from having the benefit of additional information about process in addition to seeing the result.
Therein, for me, lies the way in which one approaches a book like For the Ordinary Artist. Because if it's a collection of writings on how Berkson engaged with various art works, how does one critique that? Everyone's entitled to their opinion, right? Or, regardless of the opinion, one could, I suppose, look at how well he wrote his opinion—and many such passages are deliriously and deliciously lyrical, e.g. the beginning of his essay “Empathy in Daylight: Edward Hopper and John Register”:
John Register gathers evidence of the material world around him like a private eye on a case where human presence has lapsed almost beside the point, so thoroughly have furnishings, light and weather—in short, the environment—absorbed its capacities for mythic import. The polished surfaces and sprawling, sunstruck angularities that fill Register’s pictures can be reas as contradictory signals of high expectations and abandoned purpose. They display a soulful luster like that of distant stars, compelling though uninhabitable except by a wild leap of empathy. The leap must be instantaneous, of its own moment; this eternity of recognizable particulars brooks no nostalgia. Perhaps this is why there isn’t in fact very much weather in sight in Register’s views, although the upper tier of a picture window prospect will have “sky” things going on in it. Many of the inside-outside vistas suggest, in the artist’s phrase, “waiting rooms for the beyond”—the built environment’s more or less coherent mesh of functions caught in a slow, entropic skid. The impending vacancy feels already flooded with recall.
In other places, his writing also gets witty and hilarious, such as the beginning of his commentary on Viola Frey:
Since the early 90s, Viola Frey has been prodding the outer surfaces of her ceramic sculptures to get the physical form together with a patchy, transfiguring impetus. In going for this extra vitality, she’s moved away from a prior refinement. Now thick, drawling paint and pitted overglazes coat the figurative contours, mimicking enlarged effects of light and shade and suggesting internal anatomy, too. Sometimes the modeled forms are so swamped as to seem complicated supports for high-keyed painting; at best however, the paint helps the eye follow each volume around from any angle so the figures’ three-dimensionality appears more blatant. It’s as if Frey were purposely reversing the procedure that Jean-Paul Sartre claimed for Alberto Giacometti’s thin people: she’s putting the fat back on space.
Yet to focus on the quality of Berkson’s written word seems to sidestep the point of art writing. Yes, art writing can be poorly written and thus be criticized on that basis. But isn't a more fundamental point how the art critic engaged with the subject art work?
And so I return to my determination, as exemplified by his writing on Ossorio, that For the Ordinary Artist is effective because Berkson’s insight widens further the expanse through which the reader-viewer may later engage again with not just Ossorio but generally with all art works. For me, there were other examples besides Ossorio, and to the extent I knew of certain artists he reviewed, I noticed how what he wrote impacted my previously held viewpoints about those artists. For example: I get everything he writes about Deborah Oropallo but his description of her paintings’ debates (about what is graspable, what can be grasped, what can be remembered, what can be identified et al) as a “perpetual deferral” radicalizes my own views about her balancing acts, making me appreciate Oropallo even more.
One can certainly speculate how Berkson came to his wonderful, profound eye. One can cite his erudition, sure. But I suspect a more key element is the love he clearly feels for his subject matter. To love is to show interest. Berkson considers his response to art work to be a continuation, or a sparking, of a conversation. Wonderful. Perhaps the ultimate test of art criticism is whether it makes the reader go out of one’s way to look at the reviewed art works. Well, thanks to this book, this Courbet-appreciator is now off to pay a closer attention to Poussin about whom, Berkson says in comparing two exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “To some eyes, stacked next to Poussin, Courbet ranked suddenly (and perhaps just this once) as a somewhat cheesy egotistical bungler….”
By showing how one might look deeper, the receptive reader can be a deeper looker, too. To such a book, one can only say “Thank You” and highly recommend.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.